Using C-BARQ to Analyze Pet Behavior

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Much has been written about the C-BARQ, or Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire, study designed by animal behaviorist James Serpell, director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

The study was conducted to determine elements of canine behavior and temperament. The largest database of canine behavioral traits was compiled from the data gleaned from more than 80,000 surveys. The C-BARQ test has been thoroughly vetted for both reliability and validity.

The questionnaire begins with basic information on the dog: name, birth date, breed, sex, ID numbers and type of service dog. The 100 questions are then divided into six sections: training and obedience; aggression; fear and anxiety; separation-related behavior; excitability; and attachment and attention-seeking. Since past behavior is a good indicator of future behavior, C-BARQ asked pet owners to evaluate their pets using the questionnaire.

When the results were analyzed, one fact seemed to stand out: dogs pick up on signals from their owners or caregivers. The personality of the owner influences the dog’s behavior, too. Serpell claims, “Dogs perceive signals from us that we’re not even aware we’re giving.” Thus, judging a dog on his breed alone can be very misleading. Also, the dog’s environment influences his behavior considerably.

So what does a dog’s pedigree mean? Less than you think. Dogs have been bred to emulate the traits desired by humans. “There is no other breed or species of animal with such a wide variety of appearance and behavior,” claims Dr. Serpell. Pedigree alone should not be used to select a dog for you or your family.

There is currently a strong emphasis on shelter dogs being reintegrated into private homes. Dr. Emily Weiss believes that you can rely on the evaluation of previous owners by using tests such as the C-BARQ. In general, previous owners seemed to tell the truth about why they were giving their dogs to a shelter and are accurate in evaluating their pet’s behavior.

Yet, according to Dr. Jessica Hekman, about nine and a half times out of ten, shelters don’t know anything about the dog in their care. Dogs are brought in from many different environments and are frequently highly stressed. Stress can cause the dogs to act aggressively when perhaps in a warm, loving home environment they would not be aggressive. While shelters try to accurately evaluate dogs for aggressiveness, many times the staff is undertrained and overworked.

The value of C-BARQ is in giving parameters that are easily followed by both the layperson and the trained professional. Different studies have shown that other tests, such as SAFER and Assess-a-Pet, are not as accurate as C-BARQ in determining aggression or nonaggression in shelter animals. Since shelters want to avoid euthanizing adoptable pets or sending aggressive pets out to be adopted, accuracy in these tests is very important.

Researchers love to research. Many critics of the study believe that some of the questions lack pertinence to their dog (or dogs they have studied). Dr. Hekman believes the tests need to be more detailed. To her, it is important to know why the tests fail or succeed, and, especially, to understand what pet owners actually want from their pets, not what researchers think they want.

The crux of the matter is what you, as a pet owner, really want to know about your pet. Are you really interested in whether the dog passes a test designed to determine if an animal is acceptable for training as a service animal, or if he will pass your family’s test?

Families usually want an animal that is easily trained and gets along well with all family members, strangers and strange dogs. The dog should be trainable. Is that too much to ask? In my opinion, much of this depends on the owner. If you, the owner, take the time and are consistent, most dogs respond well to training. Problems occur when one owner wants the dog to walk on a leash, and the other wants to train the dog to be off leash most of the time. Consistency is important. Obviously, if the dog gets along well with everyone except little Timmy, you have a problem, and one that may not be resolved. Dogs that are aggressive with family members, strangers and strange dogs probably need to be in an environment where there is consistent structure and training rather than a family environment.

C-BARQ is designed to be administered on dogs as young as six months old, so ask the shelter if the animal has had the C-BARQ test and how he scored. Ask what the caretakers think about the animal. Is the test accurate, with respect to the dog, in their opinion? Observe the dog when you are around. What does your gut tell you? Take Blackie home only if you are absolutely certain he is the one for you and your family. HLM

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